The first time I took any real notice of Betty Ford was on Aug. 10, 1974. It’s easy to remember the date because just the day before President Richard Nixon’s resignation had taken effect and Betty’s husband, Gerald Ford, had taken the oath of office as the 38th president of the United States. The 10th was notable because the news media reported that the new president had awakened that day and prepared his own breakfast. Shocking!

That fact became a point of animated discussion at my family’s dinner table. My mother could not understand why the new first lady had not been awake to prepare the new president his breakfast. My father, who frequently rose early and headed off to work before anyone else woke up, was also baffled that the president of the United States had a do-it-yourself breakfast. As it turned out, this kind of look at Betty Ford’s personal life and the debate about her choices became a recurring theme.

Just months later, our family’s dinner-table discussion focused on the first lady’s diagnosis of breast cancer and her choice to make public that she was having a mastectomy. Way too personal! That night I think everyone at the table agreed that we would rather not know those details. What we didn’t appreciate is that Betty Ford’s candor would encourage tens of thousands of women to go to their doctors for breast examinations.

In these days of reality television shows in which some people let way more hang out than we really want to see, it may be hard to remember how revolutionary Betty Ford was. She was a first lady who dared to speak out on political issues. She was a vocal supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She dared to admit — on “60 Minutes” — that she would not be surprised if her daughter had sex before marriage. And she said quite openly that she believed that women should have access to legal abortions.

“Perhaps it was unusual for a first lady to be as outspoken about issues as I was, but that was my temperament, and I believed in it,” Betty Ford said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1994. “I don’t like to be dishonest, so when people asked me, I said what I thought.”

After she and her husband left the White House, she was open about her addiction to painkillers and alcohol after she sought treatment and she made the point, not so widely embraced back then, that addiction was not just a lack of willpower but that it was a disease. Along with the industrialist Leonard Firestone, she co-founded the world’s first licensed addiction hospital, the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The center has treated more than 97,000 people since it opened in 1982.

She was also open about the facelift she had after her treatment for addiction, even though cosmetic surgery was not as widely accepted as it is today.

The courage she showed was particularly remarkable because she suffered from low self-esteem. In her autobiography “Betty: A Glad Awakening” she remembered her life as the wife of a Michigan congressman who became the minority leader in the House of Representatives this way: “On one hand, I loved being ‘the wife of’; on the other hand, I was convinced that the more important Jerry became, the less important I became.”

She overcame many of the challenges that women faced decades ago and that women still face today. She described herself as an “ordinary woman” but the courage and leadership she showed was extraordinary.

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